Tropic Thunder

I think there’s some sort of unwritten rule that says “if you are a serious movie dude, you are not allowed to like Ben Stiller”. Which is fair enough if you consider some of his particularly excruciating catalogue, which I would say is merely one step above Adam Sandler but Adam Sandler had the good sense to stop churning out movies a little while back (possibly because the funding was no longer forthcoming, but that’s neither here nor there).

Thing is, Ben Stiller can sometimes have a rare comedic gift. He can be an oyster, distilling the excrement of the universe into a pearl of a movie, furnishing it with lashings of Robert Downey Jr. being a genius, and generally having a good time. There’s no room for a bad movie in here because it is, generally speaking, too fun: even if you hate Ben Stiller or Jack Black (although why you’d hate Jack Black for any reason other than his role in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, I’ll never know), this is pretty worthwhile! It’s not even stupid funny like Zoolander, which … oh God, is there any point in doing “comparative comedy”? Probably not. I was going to go into a massive detour into Will Ferrell there.

The point of the matter is that Tropic Thunder is a pretty dang funny meta-adventure into the world of film making, the vanity of “serious” actors, and the ruthlessness of studio executives. Some of it is too gross-out for my tastes, and there’s at least two nonsense dance scenes, but it’s ultimately worthwhile.

Three prima donnas of varying types – the action hero (Ben Stiller), the fart comedian (Jack Black), and the method actor (Robert Downey Jr.) – are having trouble making “Tropic Thunder”, an adaptation of a book written by a man who lost his hands in ‘Nam. That man (Nick Nolte) suggests that the director (Steve Coogan) takes them “into the shit”. Upon arriving in a carefully camera rigged valley laced with explosives, the director promptly steps on a landmine and explodes. Unfortunately, Stiller’s Tugg Speedman isn’t smart enough to realise that it was not an act, and vows that “Tropic Thunder” shall be made. Unbeknownst to all of them is the fact that there are legitimate heroin manufacturers in the area, who think that they are a legitimate American invasion force.
Yep: this shit just got real.

Part of the joy of seeing Tropic Thunder for me is that I saw it with a couple of people who had no idea what it was about. Part of the sorrow was that I had to explain to both of them who Robert Downey Jr. was, despite having seen Iron Man with one of them. There’s no use in this film having a black man in it who is, in fact, a white actor if you don’t understand it. This is a movie of surprises but also one that only works if you have a sort of vague understanding of Hollywood. In this sense, it’s actually a much smarter movie than people would imagine.

This is, of course, where it runs into the most trouble. There were protests about the film’s use of the word “retard”. The cynic in me says that these protests were played up to avoid the obviously problematic issue of black face. I understand that it’s a tricky thing, to divorce a movie’s characters from the real world and that everything is taken at face value, but that’s not right: these characters are offensive, but the movie itself isn’t. This is a film that satirises the self-importance of actors and the award grabbing techniques that they and their agents employ. It’s true that Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus gets in trouble for making himself up as a black man while the only punishment that Tugg receives for “Simple Jack” is box office failure – but doesn’t that say a lot? Lazarus has his own theories (“You never go full retard”), but it’s simply a movie that didn’t have the support of the public.

People who seriously take offence at the views of the characters in this movie should probably reassess the way they process things. I realise that it could be leveled against me that homosexuals get off easy in the film, but it does kind of annoy that the only gay celebrity nowadays is Lance Bass (and, honestly, who is going to invite Rupert “George Clooney is cancer” Everett to participate in anything?). Remember when Bass “legitimised” I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry? Yeah.
Tropic Thunder is a movie that too many people likely will take at face value, but it’s worth much more than that.

To say all of this really robs you of talking about the movie itself: it’s uniformly funny and frequently surprising. Most of the jokes that they go for fail entirely to be obvious. Stiller’s fight scene in the dead of night is absolutely hilarious, every single thing that Robert Downey Jr. says is a work of comic artistry (and he gets even funnier as the whole thing progresses), and Jay Baruchel very effectively anchors the whole group. In a movie where everything is funny – even Tom Cruise, who reminds us that he has talent as an actor despite any personal shortcomings – it’s probably not very helpful to point out the individual points of hilarity.
This movie is an effective satire of the movie industry and it deserves the success that it will get. Infinitely funnier and smarter than Zoolander, with a remarkable lack of self-awareness and only a couple of moments that are too weird for words, Ben Stiller has truly matured as a director.

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